Irmon, a Zimbabwean student studying business administration at a private university in Greater Noida, loves Indian food and music but feels tired of being addressed as an “African only”.
“Perhaps the biggest stereotype we face in India is that, Africa is considered by majority of people as a country, and our individual nation-identity is hardly acknowledged.
“Africa is a continent and we have 54 countries inside it. But whether a person is from Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Namibia or Gambia, they are all considered just Africans, as if it’s a country. Outside the university campus, barely few people acknowledge when I tell them I am from Zimbabawe. So, this is the first area we need to address,” he says.
Irmon and many other African nationals, as well as some Indian students, pursuing different courses at Sharda University here, concurred that “various stereotypes and wrong perceptions” associated with Africa was one of the factors that spur attacks, like the one seen recently here.
Seeking to defuse tension and promote harmony and cultural exchanges, the local administration in association with Sharda University recently hosted a football match between two teams, having members from both Indian and African students.
Though both sides agreed it was a good beginning, the African student community felt, such engagements should be taken on a larger scale, so that awareness can also be raised among local residents.
“Inside the campus, we feel very safe. But the recent attacks have affected us a bit psychologically and I don’t feel comfortable anymore standing at Pari Chowk, as I used to feel earlier,” says another Zimbabwean Tinashe Munanga, who is pursuing BBA course at the university.
“While such cultural exchanges will play a role, we need to first dismantle stereotypes about Africa and Africans. People think most of the Africans do drugs or are into prostitution, which is not true.“Just because some Africans are found doing it, how fair is to generalise it. We look different so, so we are easy prey,” Munanga, who played the match, told PTI.
Four Nigerian nationals were brutally assaulted by a group of local people at Pari Chowk and a nearby market plaza in Greater Noida recently, prompting envoys from African countries to term the attack xenophobic and racist.
The incident had made the African student community feel so insecure that many of them living in and out of the campus, did not show up for classes or turn up at the campus, says said Tarun Negi, a BBA student.
Sharda University has a fairly large number of students from Africa and couple of other private universities adjoining it also have such students.
19-year-old Nigerian Mohammed says he came to India to study engineering inspired by the growth story of the country.
“My father is an engineer and has visited India and it was he who had recommended me to pursue engineering here. I feel totally safe inside the campus but outside it feels different,” he says.
Jamila, a Nigerian woman who visits India regularly for medical treatment of her 7-year-old daughter Rukayya, says, “People attack because they feel threatened about someone entering into their territory. This tendency can only be curbed through education and mass awareness.
“Unfortunately, not enough is written about Africa in Indian media. People stare at us, in streets and metros, as if we are aliens. Well-rounded education only can only address these issues,” says Abuja-native Jamila, who came to cheer during the match.
Chidera Okolie, 25, a law student, who welcomed guests at the match, tried speaking in Hindi, drawing cheers from the audience, showing how through humour the linguistic barriers were being overcome.
“Many African students try to speak in Hindi, while greeting others or buying grocery, and similarly many Indians here have requested me to teach them Hausa, one of the African languages spoken in Nigeria,” says Mohammed.
“They also tried teaching me the Bollywood dance moves,” he says with a smile.
India and Africa have enjoyed long-standing ties, both diplomatic and people-to-people, and many Indians also feel, more often than not, violent actions are spurred by stereotypes harboured over the years.
Mohit Sharma, a BSc (Nursing) student at Sharda University, who hails from Greater Noida, says, “Initially, I was very hesitant to talk to African students because my family and friends had asked me to be cautious.
“But, then slowly, as I began talking, I realised how nice they were. They are now my friends, including two African girls in my class. We need to lose our pre-conceived notions about Africa and Africans, that is the way forward.”